The laws of unintended consequences…

Iceni Projects has looked into the possible repercussions of the Government’s announcement last week by Planning Minister Brandon Lewis that planning authorities in England must produce post-NPPF local plans by early 2017 or face intervention.

Recent research carried out by Iceni Projects has found that only 125 of 330 local authorities in England (38%) have adopted their Local Plans since the publication of the NPPF (information gathered April – July 2015), which underpins why the Government has felt compelled to comment on this matter.

However, the danger is that in trying to right a wrong, further damage may be committed to the plan making process.  Communities Secretary of State, Greg Clark, has voiced concern that some Inspectors are taking too tough a line on emerging development plans, stating that “there is a real value in getting a local plan in place at the soonest opportunity, even if it has some shortcomings which are not critical to the whole plan. … it is critical that inspectors approach examination from the perspective of working pragmatically with councils towards achieving a sound local plan.”

Greg Clark’s statement is laudable in principle, but clearly it depends on the scale and breadth of the unsound element of the plan.

We have already seen Greg Clark call in the submitted Maldon Local Plan after lobbying from the Leader of the Council, despite the Inspector concluding that ‘all the Plan’s housing policies are fundamentally unsound because the Plan does not identify and meet objectively assessed housing needs and it is not based on adequate, up-to-date and relevant evidence.’

We will need to wait to see the outcome of the Maldon examination, and to what extent Clark will move away from the Inspector’s findings.  Common sense might suggest that in a case such as Maldon, all bar the housing policies of the plan could be adopted and relied upon for decision making purposes.  However, the devil is inevitably in the detail.  For example, what would this mean for the principles of sustainable development, and the drive for mixed-use communities, including ‘sound’ employment and community elements, but ‘unsound’ housing?  Conversely, will Clarke allow local planning authorities to adopt development plans with sub-standard housing policies for the sake of a bad plan being better than no plan at all?  Whilst this may appear an appropriately pragmatic response, it will not be the low-hanging fruit that will be prejudiced from development – such as urban brownfield sites – which arguably need no plan at all to materialise.  Rather, it will be the greenfield sites – the very sites that local authorities gain little political mileage in identifying, but are crucial to meeting objectively assessed need – that will perish.  If the pressure is released to identify fully objectively assessed housing need, it will take even longer for a fully sound plan to materialise, to the detriment of housing delivery as a whole.

Iceni Projects will continue to monitor the situation, and will provide further analysis in due course.

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